During every berry-picking season in the Pacific Northwest, blueberry and raspberry growers fight to prevent birds from gobbling up the crop before harvest. This year, some farmers are trying something new to scare away the thieving birds: lasers.
Justin Meduri manages a large blueberry farm and cherry orchard outside Jefferson, Ore. Birds like both fruits.
"Flocks can move in of up to 2,000 to 3,000 starling birds," Meduri says. The starlings gorge themselves and knock down berries right as the crop is ready to pick. When he didn't take countermeasures, Meduri says the damage was "Inconceivable, huge. We had almost a 20 to 25 percent, maybe even 30 percent damage loss."
Meduri says he previously hired a falconer to protect his fields. But the falcons were expensive, temperamental and sometimes flew away. Then last year, he became one of the first farmers in the U.S. to install automated lasers.
"You're creating this kind of laser light show at 4 o'clock in the morning," Meduri says. "That's the time when birds come out."
The lasers cross over in erratic patterns. The sweeping green laser beams emanate from what look like security cameras atop metal poles.
They also work during the daytime. But in sunlight, the human eye can only see green dots dancing across the berry-laden bushes.
Meduri is thrilled with the results.
"[The lasers are] running right now as we speak. You're out here in over 175 acres of blueberries," he says, punctuating the observation with a staccato of hand claps. "There's not one bird that you see flying around."
Meduri says that had any birds been in the bushes, the clapping would have made them come out.
"Oh, yeah. They spook," he says. "It's pretty nice."
A Netherlands-based company called Bird Control Group made the six lasers that Meduri first rented, then bought. The company's director of North American business development is Wayne Ackermann, who's based in the Portland area.
Ackermann says the lasers are catching on.
"In the Northwest, the applications we have sold them for so far have been blueberry growers, cherry growers, vineyards and some Honeycrisp [apples]. We've got one going in on top of a grocery store in the greater Seattle market," Ackermann says.
Bird Control Group started out in Europe, for the most part using lasers to shoo pesky birds away from industrial sites and airports. In the U.S. market, the agricultural industry appears to be the most promising.
Ackermann says some of his initial sales have come from farmers trying to appease neighbors.
"One grower in eastern Washington was the first to bring this to my attention," Ackermann says. "He's a cherry grower and he said he was having a combative relationship with one of his neighbors."
The silent lasers proved a friendlier — and sometimes better — bird repellent than traditional tools such as propane cannons or squawk boxes. The lasers are also friendlier than using poison or a 12-gauge shotgun.
One automated laser unit costs about $9,500, which Ackermann says qualifies as "affordable" for commercial farms.
The company offers free laser safety training. That's important because lasers can burn your eyes if you look into them. It's the same danger as pilots being blinded by irresponsible people aiming laser pointers into the sky.
Bird Control Group says it programs its automated lasers to always shine the beam downward. It also recommends that fields be posted with signs to keep strangers out when lasers are in use.
Researchers at Purdue University are studying the risk of injury to birds. Principal investigator Esteban Fernandez-Juricic says very little is known about whether lasers can harm the animals' retinas.
"What we are trying to assess is whether different levels of energy output of these lasers and different levels of exposure time could cause any kind of retinal injury on the animal," Fernandez-Juricic says. "These retinal injuries could potentially be pretty serious and affect the ability of the animal to see and consequently to find food, mates or refuge."
Fernandez-Juricic says he hopes to release preliminary results in three to six months. He says that so far his team has come up with some "interesting results," but the data need to undergo peer review before public release.
A marine scientist from Seattle encouraged and supported Fernandez-Juricic to tackle safety and efficacy questions. Washington Sea Grant's Ed Melvin says that his interest stemmed from an experimental deployment of a laser unit on a commercial fishing boat off the Oregon coast.
Melvin says fishing vessel owners were curious if laser beams could deter deadly seabird interactions with fishing gear. He raised a complication, the risk of retinal injury to protected species such as the endangered short-tail albatross. The initial trial with two onboard lasers in 2015 found wide variation in seabird response depending on the species and time of day.
"The jury is out whether, and to what extent, this is effective," Melvin says.
Ackermann says birds perceive a laser beam differently than humans, probably seeing it as a physical danger coming at them.
"It's like someone waving a stick in your face," Ackermann says. "At some point, you're going to say, 'I'm not welcome here and I'm going to leave.' "
Ackermann describes a rapid growth curve for the business in North America starting from 20 to 25 laser units being deployed on farms last year, rising to about 100 this growing season. Next year, he anticipates selling 300 or more lasers for bird deterrence, including expansion into newer sectors such as oil refineries, warehouses and dairy feedlots.